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Building an Economy on Purpose

There’s no doubt that how the world comes together is changing.  So much of it is beautiful and joyful as we discover new cultures, some is hateful and drenched in fear.  But what we do know is that economies, how we all make our living and get the scratch we need to live, love, and be happy is changing faster than most of us can possibly keep up with.  How can we build an economy on purpose?

You can read that last sentence several ways, and they are all important.

This is what the Social Enterprise Alliance (SEA) 2013 Summit in Minneapolis, starting  19 May, is about.  Social Enterprises exist to use the power of free markets to promote social good – businesses that are self-sufficient, stable institutions out to not make a profit but to improve the world in some way.  The techniques and lessons of making that happen are not always obvious, and these annual summits are a key tool for advancing the cause and making sure that the change we are all buffeted by eventually works for all of us – on purpose.

Social-EnterpriseThe SEA as an organization has a unique charter.  They describe Social Enterprise this way:  “As a country and global community, we stand at a unique inflection point. It appears that the world’s problems are outstripping our ability to address them, but what may be more accurate is simply that traditional institutions are no longer sufficient.  Social enterprise is emerging as the ‘missing middle’ sector between the traditional worlds of government, nonprofits and business.”

That’s a powerful statement because it starts from the harsh reality of the world we live in.  There are many things that simply need to be done for us to live in a decent and civil world, but some of them are not set up be paid.  Who will raise the kids?  Build the community?  Take care of those who have trouble taking care of themselves?  Do we have to rely on charity and a heart-rendering appeal to make sure that the good work is all done?  Or raise taxes and set up another branch of government?

Increasingly, the answer is that there is another way – social enterprise.

Social enterprises are a growing trend all around the world.  They can, and usually do, work with charitable and government agencies to make things happen.  What they often do is provide the interface with the market that is essential to making a project work.  The easiest examples are in community building, such as what we do in the Fort Road Federation as we redevelop the old Schmidt Brewery and its Rathskeller.

But there is much more to it than that, because much of the good work that is needed in the world can be hooked up with a source of income.  One example here in Minnesota is Finnegan’s, a brewery that gives all of its money to feed the poor.  Peace Coffee works for economic justice for farmers and promote healthy local economies and sustainable business practices by opening up a market for coffee grown to these standards.

It is not always easy to start enterprises like this.  A lot of the sessions will be devoted to raising capital, finding talent, and other things that are often greeted with little more than a raised eyebrow in the purely for-profit world.  The movement is still young, but it has developed a track record with enough success and experience to share to help spread the benefits to more and more all the time.

That’s why one block of sessions is called “Spirit” – people in the field often need to do nothing more than swap stories and hook up with each other.  As one of the speakers notes in their program description, “I love my work, but it can be lonely, too, and most of my friends really don’t get it.”  Quite a confession.

But that’s what it means to be a pioneer, and people in these fields are still learning how to make it work.  It is about that work, though, and nothing but that work – not profit, but doing good in the world.  Getting together all the resources to make it happen is a bit harder, but the rewards are seen in the communities and the hearts that are touched by it.  That’s often reward enough.

The SEA Summit ’13 runs from Sunday, 19 May through Wednesday, 22 May.  It’s already sold out, but Register online here if you don’t want to miss out – I for one will be there to report on what’s happening.  See you there?

9 thoughts on “Building an Economy on Purpose

  1. This sounds excellent! The free market is very powerful and it has not been tapped for public good anywhere near what it should be. People are looking for alternatives like Peace Coffee and those brands are worth a lot. It’s about authenticity and that makes a powerful brand today. It sure can be leveraged for good and this is a great movement. Let us all know what you learn!

    • I will let you know! (it’s what I do, fergooshsakes) I agree that as a truly free market is about people’s values, what they value has a net translation into $$$ that should never be ignored. And yes, you can’t fake it – at least not forever. Social media is opening up genuine transparency and that should lead to authenticity (sometimes it’s pretty thin, but we’re working on it). There is a lot of value added through that and it should show.

  2. I have a dumb question – this blog is dated May 10th but it is still the 9th in Minnesota – you are in Minnesota, right? Why is this post-dated?

    • Ha! There is only one time on this planet worth knowing, and it is Greenwich Mean Time, aka UTC aka Zulu. Midnight is at 7PM Central Daylight Time, so the Barataria “day” starts then. 🙂
      I firmly believe that one planet needs only one time – and the rest are just numbers.

  3. Erik, terrific piece on the upcoming Social Enterprise Alliance Summit ’13. Let me, as a PR representative for the Summit, offer one major correction if you will: the Summit is not sold out! There’s still plenty of time to register to attend, all the registration information is available here: http://summit2013.se-alliance.org/register/ What is sold out is the Summit Marketplace, which takes place Monday, May 20, 5:30-7:30 p.m. at the Marriott – about 50 Minnesota social enterprises are exhibiting their products and services at the Marketplace, which is free to attend – aimed primarily at potential buyers of products and services from the participating social enterprises. Again, thanks for giving the Summit attention in your blog – I look forward to seeing you at the Summit.

  4. This sounds great! I love Peace Coffee and am willing to pay a little bit more to know that it really is good all the way around. Its also better coffee!

    • This will be a great program – there are any examples and Peace Coffee is just one. I like how your brand loyalty shows – that’s the value of this. Authenticity is going to be the hallmark if social media can get over allowing so much phoniness!

  5. Pingback: The Economy of People | Barataria - The work of Erik Hare

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